Language

Language, Thought, and White Privilege

I am not an expert in race. I am not an expert in anything, really—just a dilettante in a number of areas that I find interesting. One of those areas—language—has been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve reflected on the ongoing crisis in race relations we have in this country.

dictionary entry of the word "language" - header image for essay language thought and white privilege

As our news and social media are filled daily with continuing evidence that racism and intolerance are alive and well in America, some long overdue conversations about White Privilege and systematic racism have been taking place with increasing frequency. But as these conversations take place, it becomes clear that most of us do not realize how deeply ingrained our system of racial injustice runs. It goes far beyond explicit, intentional actions of the kind we witnessed with horror in Charleston, South Carolina last week. That kind of explicit racial hatred is easy to spot and those who insist that we live in a post-racial society will try to claim that such incidents are anomalies.  The system of racial injustice even goes beyond the institutionalized systems that privilege one racial group over another. The pattern of injustice goes right to our very thinking.

Some of us are aware of the implicit biases we have and the implicit associations we make with one racial or ethnic group or another. Others of us can, often to our horror or shame, take an online test to find out what our implicit associations are.  But we needn’t go to the lengths of taking an online test to discover our implicit biases and associations; our language betrays those for us already.

Contrary to lot of popular understanding, language does not shape the way we think (it may frame it)—but we are not bound to certain modes of thought because our language possesses certain words or uses certain constructions. And while words are powerful, they cannot on their own form our way of thinking. Language does not shape our thoughts; it reveals them.

In his wonderful book Words and Rules, noted linguist Steven Pinker describes experiments conducted in psychology and linguistics that demonstrated that, contrary to our assumptions, we do not think in terms of strict categories, but rather in “family resemblance categories.” That is, we do not think of categories as including all their defined members, but as being identified by a prototype and others that bear a “family resemblance” to that prototype:[mfn]Pinker, Words and Rules : The Ingredients of Language, 274 (citing Rosch, 1978, 1988; Smith & Medin, 1981)[/mfn]

[Psychologist Eleanor Rosch] asked people to make up sentences with category words such as “bird.” Typical responses were “I heard a bird twittering outside my window” and “Three birds sat on the branch of the tree.” Then she replaced the word “bird” by various species: sparrow, penguin, eagle, ostrich. The absurdity of “I heard a penguin twittering outside my window” and “Three ostriches sat on the branch of the tree” shows that it must have been prototypical birds that had popped into the subjects’ minds.

Steven Pinker, Words and Rules, p. 274

The experiment demonstrates that in our minds, we do not think in the expansive categories that we know objects to be a part of (e.g., the zoological definition of a “bird”). Rather, we think in terms of associations and family resemblances. That is, we may know intellectually that birds include everything from sparrows to emus, but the reality is that in our brains, some birds are more birdlike than others. It also turns out that some vegetables are more vegetable-like than others (carrots, celery, peas versus parsley) and some fruits are more fruit-like than others (apples versus watermelon).

But what does any of this have to do with racism and White Privilege?

Consider the definition of the word American. Some years ago, a friend of mine remarked to me that there would be no racial reconciliation in this country until “White Americans acknowledge that Black Americans are Americans.” At the time he said it, I remember thinking it a strange statement. Of course, Black Americans are Americans, I thought. How could it be otherwise? In fact, given the fact that most Black families can trace their origins in this country to well before 1809, Blacks have more claim to the word than most Whites, whose forebears emigrated well after that.

I know there are some who doubt that White Privilege is real. But if being part of the group that is the “default setting” for the definition of your nationality is not a privilege, I don’t know what is.

But it turns out that while we know intellectually that the category American is broad (as we know bird to be), some Americans are more American-like than others. It certainly explains why any deviation from the prototype needs to be accounted for with hyphenation:  African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, Arab-American, Jewish-American, Native American [mfn]Further, consider the term Native American and its implications: even those who predated the rest of us still have a qualified “Americanness.” Talk about adding insult to injury.[/mfn] and so on. [mfn]While Irish-American and Italian-American would fit into the current definition of white, the existence of these terms reminds us that at one point in our history, the Americanness of the Irish and the Italians was considered questionable.  It should also be noted that while this essay concerns the United States, it is not a phenomenon limited to the United States. You can see it in other national contexts as well where language betrays different qualities of belonging: e.g., Afro-Cuban, Arab IsraeliPakistani-Britons, Français de papier (versus Français de souche or simply Français),[masrussian] русский [/masrussian] russkii “Russian” versus[masrussian] российский [/masrussian]rossiiskii “Russia-ian” (i.e., a Russian passport holder).[/mfn] I have rarely, if ever, heard English-American, and Anglo-American usually refers to international relations. (You occasionally hear European-American but usually only by well-meaning liberals who have figured out the linguistic inequity or by those who like to emphasize their own Europeanness.)

No, just as with birds where we have to describe a penguins as “flightless water fowl” in order to make it clear we’re not talking about the default prototypical bird, we have to make it clear to our listeners that we’re not talking about “default” (i.e., white, Anglo, usually Christian) Americans, but some other variant, part of the broader category, but not the prototypical one.

This is a concept not limited to those whom it benefits. Some years ago, I was talking with a former student on campus who was Muslim and Pakistani by birth.  She and her family had lived in the U.S. for years and had their citizenship. By any basic definition, she and her family were Americans. But she told me that her mother would say things like, “You shouldn’t date American boys,” where American did not refer to themselves (U.S. citizens) but to white, likely Christian, and native-born.

Here’s an experiment you can try yourself. In training young adult missionaries for international and domestic service, The United Methodist General Board of Global Missions often invites its trainees to preface all their descriptions of people with the individual’s race. Trainees can be heard to say things like, “So, I was having coffee with my white friend Natalie the other day” or “You should take a course with that white professor, Dr. Smith.” Try it yourself and see how people react.

Frequently, people will not think twice about hearing someone identified as Black or Hispanic or Asian but will be caught off guard by someone being identified as White. Whiteness is assumed until the listener is told otherwise. The experiment can be jarring because it forces us to confront the fact that for many, identifying an unknown individual as White seems like unnecessary information, whereas failing to identify that same individual as Black would be tantamount to withholding critical information. The experiment gives us yet another window into the deep assumptions of our brains, revealed by our language.

I know there are some who doubt that White Privilege is real. But if being part of the group that is the “default setting” for the definition of your nationality is not a privilege, I don’t know what is.

There are many levels on which racial injustice operates in this country: the overt discrimination, the acts of violence, the systemic institutionalization of prejudice and bias, the casual racism, the micro-agressions.  But if we do not pay attention to this deepest, most sub-conscious level, addressing the other manifestations of societal racism may come up short. So long as we continue to define in our heads different qualities of Americanness with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as the default setting and everyone else on a continuum of being less-than, it is going to be very difficult to overcome centuries of racial prejudice built into the system.

But, I do think there is hope after all. Linguists refer to these associations as “family resemblance categories” and therein lies the hope. For while that description was crafted to describe the relationship between sparrows and penguins, carrots and parsley, it is an accidental reminder about the true relationship between different racial groups.

For we all are one family. And though we have been conditioned by culture and history to view ourselves as fundamentally different, the reality is that we are all related. We all have the same ancestry, the same genes, the same blood flowing through our veins. We are all members of one human family. Families don’t have to look alike to love alike. Indeed, families often include people who are not biologically related to the other members, and that never stopped the other members from treating them and loving them as a part of the family in every meaningful way.  Were someone to suggest that, say, an adopted child or an in-law, were not truly part of the family because of different racial or ethnic characteristics, the idea would be flatly rejected. Family is family.

We can do that, too. We can train ourselves to think of one another as part of one family. It is certainly a truth that the great religions of the world have proclaimed (even when their adherents forgot). If we can commit to that fundamental truth then someday, while we might still think of sparrows and robins as more birdlike than the chickens and emus of the world, we will come to a place where the color of our skins no longer causes us to think of some Americans as more American-like than others. Instead, our Americanness, indeed our humanity, will be defined only by our shared commitment to the dignity, rights, well-being, and humanity of all who claim the name.